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Noticing the Foot

(Photo Credit: Gord Johnson, Ladysmith, BC, Canada)

It is the end of my first Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) unit. Four-hundred hours of supervised spiritual care at LA County Hospital—and I feel as if I am standing amongst the rubble of my life.

It is like a moment from our time in class, told with permission from its transmitter and my colleague, Wally. Wally was sharing an incredible learning story. He had just returned that week from an emergency request to tend to a man that had died and come back to life.

The man was a roofer. He had driven his truck to the landfill to drop off old tiles. Backed his truck in, dumped the tiles, and had stepped out of his truck to ensure all the tiles had been disposed of. As he stepped out, standing at this pile, a plowing truck turned the corner. The truck was plowing the landfill trash to make more room for more dumping and, unbeknownst to that driver, was headed straight for the man, his truck, and his pile of tiles.

Without much time at all, the man found himself swept up by the landfill plow, carried away with the pile of rubble, tiles, baby diapers, dust, leaves, trash. Screaming and yelling, the driver couldn’t hear him. Bit by bit, carried away, the man’s body was compacted by the oncoming trash as more and more came upon him, his screams muffled as his lungs took on the refuse. He was sure he was finished.

Despite that, his upside down body compacted, someone at the landfill saw the plough, saw the trash and noticed something strange—a single, human foot shaking and moving peeping out from the top of the trash. Something was more human about that foot than usual, so the person ran screaming to the plough to stop its motion.

The plough stopped. The paramedics were called. The next thing the man knew, he was staring into Wally’s eyes, coughing up dust, whispering gratitude.

Wally tells us this story, touched by the experience. We are stunned.

To get the words flowing, our supervisor asks the obvious question one would ask after a story like that:

“And where was God?”

Her question, his story, stay with me. I know I have fashioned my life an incredible city—with a mighty landfill. Landfills—our temples to dispensability. Cathedrals to the “its in the past.” Congregations of “I’m over it.” Stained glass windows of what got broken and never restored. Just dump and go—don’t hang around too long. Dump and go. Don’t look. I came to CPE expecting I could go to the dump to drop off my latest dreams and intuitions for compacting and returned unscathed to become an ordained clergy person.

But this time, I didn’t make it back.

And really—who ever does? If we are not caught in the rubble now, when? I was born in 1987—the first year, scientists say, that the earth began to consume more resources than it could sustain. I have been born at a time of unprecedented dumping—the dumping of human lives into Twin Towers County Jail or the human landfill of Skid Row, testimony to our belief that certain lives are more dispensable than others. Each year of my life I’ve lived in the largest cosmic landfill we’ve ever known. And at what point will each of us finally get swept up in our own rubble? What about me? When I have or lose my first child? Lose the last of my parents? When I wake up in a job that I thought was a calling, but was really the closing of other dreams? An illness, a cancer, that puts me in this hospital?

There we are, each of us, caught in the momentum of the rubble of our own lives.

So… where do I see God in that?

As a Universalist mystic, the sacred and profane are one—holy the moment, holy the expanse, holy the plough, holy the paycheck pushing the plough, holy the tiles, holy the diapers, holy the screaming for life.

But for now at this moment, baptized in the rubble of my life, it was and is most profoundly and specifically this:  holy are the story catchers who sit among the expanse of rubble, thoughtfully available, to notice the foot.

Thank you for noticing my foot.

I will leave here to sit, like that thoughtful observer, amongst the rubble of my life and amongst those who see the rubble for what it truly is—the gritty foundation for something more incredible, more true, more honest. The rubble from which life begins again.

This piece written for a closing ceremony of Summer Interfaith Chaplain Interns at LA County Hospital / St. Camillus Center for Spiritual Care in Los Angeles, CA. June 2014.